Dec 06 2011

Organic Food, Pesticides, and Cancer

I recently received the following question:

My wife is worried about eating vegetables that have been treated with pesticides for fear that it increases risk of cancer. I have looked at some of the books she has read that pushes organic eating and I was not impressed with the authors credentials or citations. Is there any scientific evidence that supports the assertion that eating organic vegetables will reduce the risk of cancer?

Organic farming is a complex issue, and one of those issues shrouded with ideological belief to the point that it is often difficult to find objective evidence and opinion. There are also many issues within the organic farming framework. Is organic farming cost effective, more sustainable, capable of feeding the world, better for the environment, and better for human health? There is also the more fundamental question – what, exactly, constitutes organic farming? I find that often it is a catch-all phrase for any farming practice deemed to be more sustainable or environmentally friendly, or any practice considered “natural”. Unfortunately “natural” is a vague term.

Here is part of the USDA definition for organic:

“Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.

The devil, as always, is in the details – what, operationally, does this mean? Here there is agreement on some details but not on others. You can search the USDA site linked to above for more details.

My opinion is that farming practices should each be judged on their own merits, utilizing the best evidence available. I find this situation similar to the “alternative medicine” category, which is sweeping in its philosophy but with no clear operational definition, and eager to claim for itself practices which are solidly science-based (like legitimate uses of nutrition, physical therapy, or even exercise). Organic farming seems better than CAM as a category, but still represents a false dichotomy, in my opinion. Is any sustainable practice organic? What difference does it make what the source of a pesticide is?

I agree with many of the organic principles – like sustainability, low environmental impact, and food safety. Who would be against sustainability in agriculture? I would prefer, however, an evidence- based rather than philosophy-based (which, for organic farming, is essentially the naturalistic fallacy) approach to what works.

My big problem with the “organic” label is when it is applied to produce rather than farming practice. It is used as a marketing device, implying greater nutrition and safety. However, the evidence is simply not there to back up such claims.

A recent review of the published research from 1958-2008 showed that the evidence does not support the conclusion that there is any nutrition-related health benefit to eating organic food. Fifty years is a long time for organic food advocates to have made this case, but they haven’t. It also seems, however, that there hasn’t been a great deal of high quality research in this area, so it seems that the confidence in this conclusion of a lack of benefit is still open to better research.

Other studies look simply at the nutritional content of organic vs traditionally farmed produce.  The same researchers did a systematic review of this question and found:

On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. The small differences in nutrient content detected are biologically plausible and mostly relate to differences in production methods.

Some studies have found small increases in nutritional content in organic produce. However, it is possible that this is mostly or even entirely due to the fact that organic produce tends to be a little smaller with lower water content, and so higher concentrations of measured nutrients. It is still not clear, therefore, that eating organic produce will deliver more overall nutrients than eating traditional produce, and if there is a difference if it is clinically relevant to health.

This brings up yet another issue – organic produce is more expensive. The USDA lists comparisons of organic and conventional produce prices and finds that there is a premium for organic produce. Looking through some of the tables is seems that organic produce is more than twice as expensive as conventional produce. Another USDA site, however, finds that 40% of organic farmers at farmers markets did not charge a premium for their organic produce, although this varied by season and crop.

Regardless of the reasons for the price difference, there is still a premium for most organic crops. Given the small, if any, nutritional advantage, it’s possible that higher organic food prices might result in a net decrease in consumption of fruits and vegetables.  In any case, the evidence for nutritional health benefits does not support paying a higher premium for organic produce (although there are many other reasons why someone might prefer organic and be willing to pay a higher price, but they are separate issues outside the scope of this post).

What about the issue of pesticides? Here is where the “organic” concept is most guilty of committing the naturalistic fallacy. The organic label does not mean pesticide free. It just means that “naturally derived” pesticides are used instead of “artificial” pesticides. There is no a priori reason, however, to assume that naturally-derived pesticides are safer. It mostly means that they are less well-researched, because of the false assumption that they are safer.

Again – this is a very complex area in itself. To summarize what I have found: pesticides are poisons, there is no question, and all efforts should be made to limit human and environmental exposure. This does not mean they cannot be used safely, but precautions need to be taken. There is no reason to assume organic pesticides are safe or safer than conventional pesticides. There is evidence that organic pesticides are often less effective, requiring greater amounts to be used, which can have a net negative effect on the environment. When studied it turns out that organic pesticides can also have carcinogenic effects.

Here is a good summary of the evidence.

While organic produce has lower levels of pesticides than conventional produce, there is no evidence that these low levels of pesticides pose any health risk. For those who wish to minimize their pesticide exposure, just in case, buying organic may not even be the best option. Washing your fruits and vegetables works quite well in reducing pesticide residue. It’s also cheaper than buying organic.

Conclusion

While the overall issue of organic farming is complex with many sub-issues, the question of health benefits is perhaps the easiest to answer at this time. After decades of research there is no evidence for any health benefits to eating organic vs conventional food. Nutritional value is either slightly higher or not significantly different in organic produce, but even with a generous interpretation is not clinically significant.

The issue of pesticides has not been completely resolved, but at present the levels of pesticides in conventional produce is likely to be below safety limits, and there is no real reason to conclude that “organic” pesticides are any safer. Further, the most effective means of minimizing pesticide exposure is simply to thoroughly wash your fresh produce.

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66 responses so far

66 Responses to “Organic Food, Pesticides, and Cancer”

  1. daijiyobuon 06 Dec 2011 at 11:30 am

    Re: “after decades of research there is no evidence for any health benefits to eating organic vs conventional food”…

    Don’t tell ‘dem naturopaths, who push organic with the fervor of stockholders invested in the company.

    Of course, they really don’t have a clue when it comes to comprehensive scientific reviews.

    -r.c.

  2. TsuDhoNimhon 06 Dec 2011 at 11:30 am

    Also – the researcher whose work led to the panic about pesticides, and the “Ames Test” has pointed out that plants contain potent pesticides that they produce naturally. And of those that he has tested, many are carcinogenic. You eat 1000x more of these than you do the artificial ones.

    http://rasmussenanders.blogspot.com/2007/04/natural-foods-contain-more-carcinogens_14.html

    http://potency.berkeley.edu/text/handbook.pesticide.toxicology.pdf is also good.

    Beet root, for example, has so much formaldehyde that it would be banned as a construction material in some countries … but it’s a food.

  3. daedalus2uon 06 Dec 2011 at 11:52 am

    I just cited a paper by Bruce Ames in a manuscript I am working on.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10686303

    It is available from google scholar.

    He argues that most cancer is probably from micronutrient malnutrition and not due to xenobiotic or even “natural” carcinogens. His argument is (essentially) that when DNA is made, if there is a shortage of DNA precursors due to dietary insufficiencies, DNA defects occur. Some of these can be repaired, but there is a greater tendency for double strand breaks which are sometimes not repaired exactly correctly. These double strand breaks mimic what exposure to radiation does.

    I think he is correct as far as he goes.

  4. mufion 06 Dec 2011 at 1:16 pm

    There is another reason why some folks favor organically farmed produce, which is that they believe that organic farming is less reliant on fossil fuels than conventional farming (i.e. given the usual – and I would argue, often valid – concerns over dependency on fossil fuels).

    Of course, it’s not necessarily so, given all of the ways that organic farms do still rely upon fossil fuels (e.g. to power the equipment – trucks, tractors, harvesters, and refrigerators – transport the produce long-distance, heat the farmers’ homes, etc.), and it may yet turn out that organic techniques play a minor role, at best, in a more sustainable (e.g. renewables-based) economy.

  5. kikyoon 06 Dec 2011 at 2:27 pm

    I find it unfortunate what has become of the word “organic.” The focus should not be on “organic,” but rather, as Dr. Novella pointed out, on “sustainable.” Organic is not just a philosophy, it’s a legal certification and is also a marketing label. For farmers, it takes time and money to become officially labeled as an organic farm and I know many local farmers who are not “organic” but do grow their produce without pesticides and following sustainable practices using crop diversity and other methods. Their business suffers because many people will only buy produce that is certified organic, yet these smaller farmers often are able to use more sustainable practices than the larger, certified organic producers whose bigger profit margin comes from large export operations across the country, while maintaining a “small family farm” image locally.

    The “organic” label has become a marketing tool to reach lazy people who want to think they are eating responsibly but don’t actually want to do the work to find out if they actually are eating responsibly. When you have things like “organic croutons” and “organic Twinkies” in the store, then the whole thing has basically become a joke. Like health claims on food labels and CAM remedies, it’s an area where a little widespread critical thinking skills could really go a long way.

  6. nybgruson 06 Dec 2011 at 3:25 pm

    hmmm…. coincidence or was Dr. Novella reading our discussion in the last thread? The world may never know ;-)

    But in all seriousness, thanks for the article. This was basically everything I had been suspecting but it was nice to have another set of eyes on the data and package it neatly for me. It became the basis for an email I sent out to my family. My mother and sister love buying organic. My mother even bought me some “organic” beef from CostCo when I returned home saying it was “better.” It was literally more than double the price, but better? Hardly. The regular ol’ CostCo stuff was even leaner too!

    So I sent them an email basically saying “I don’t care what you do, but times are tough and this seems like a waste of money to me, so here’s the info and do with it what you will.”

    Somehow I doubt my sister will alter her buying habits at all, even though she is usually very pedantic about managing money and being frugal. Of course, her family contains no scientists. She didn’t follow the family trend and went into public relations and her husband is in finance.

    Oh well, at least I know what to say about organic.

  7. Steven Novellaon 06 Dec 2011 at 3:46 pm

    kikyo – I completely agree. “Organic” started as a somewhat bizarre naturalistic philosophy, and evolved to incorporate sustainable farming practices and other stuff. Now it is mainly a marketing label and false dichotomy that distracts from the real issues.

    We should do whatever the evidence says is safe, sustainable, healthy, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective – not what makes us feel warm and fuzzy because it touches some psychological need.

  8. locutusbrgon 06 Dec 2011 at 4:38 pm

    @mufi
    Without debating what qualifies as “Organic” there is evidence that methods utilized to achieve the Organic tag uses the same equipment, vehicles and transportation as “conventional” agriculture. In many circumstances it is the same company whom sells the differently tagged food. Although there is some theoretical potential for greenhouse savings in “organic farming methods”, there has been no large scale utilization of these labor intensive methods. There is also a problem with low yield over greater land which has a argumentative benefit/downside. Most stuff on the US shelf had fulfilled the requirements necessary to place the marketing tag of “Organic” on its products. They have misrepresented what the real benefits of this tag mean to fossil fuel use.

  9. tmac57on 06 Dec 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Ok,I’m going to introduce a little skepticism here.I just ran across an article on The Organic Center website (yeah,I know,but it was mentioned in a Consumer Reports article). I have no idea how reliable they are,but their review of the literature since 1980 does show nutritional advantages for organic.Take a look,and see what you think:
    http://www.organic-center.org/science.nutri.php?action=view&report_id=157

  10. Karl Withakayon 06 Dec 2011 at 4:54 pm

    The term organic is an unfortunate choice, mostly used to appeal to the naturalistic fallacy crowd.

    Let’s not forget where all that FOSSIL fuel comes from; petroleum is natural too.

    Almost anyone who has ever taken an organic chemistry class is likely somewhat amused by the use of the word organic in regards to food production

    Benzene = organic compound

    2,2,4 trimethylpentane (Iso-octane)= organic compound

    Polyethylene = organic polymer

    Polychlorinated biphenyls = organic compounds

    Ethyl ({2-[bis(propan-2-yl)amino]ethyl}sulfanyl)(methyl)phosphinate (VX Nerve Agent) =organic Organophosphate compound

  11. MikeBon 07 Dec 2011 at 5:32 am

    Hello. Former self-styled organic gardener here and once employed at an organic farm. We looked into gaining certification for our own new farm. Looking into the manuals and such, I dropped the idea like a hot potato.

    My conclusion: it’s not what goes into their pie holes that’s the problem. It’s what comes out of their pie holes that’s the problem

    Just a couple of things:

    The USDA’s National Organics Program, which began with an Act of Congress in 1990, articulates the naturalistic fallacy this way:

    “As a general rule, all natural (non-synthetic) substances are allowed in organic production and all synthetic substances are prohibited. The National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances, a section in the regulations, contains the specific exceptions to the rule.”

    In other words, natural substances are OK, unless they’re not OK; and synthetic substances are not OK, unless they’re OK. One can only stand in wonder at how high the manure has been piled in this case, all the way up to the United States Department of Agriculture, in fact.

    “Allowed Synthetics” are rationalized this way:

    (1) The substance cannot be produced from a natural source and there are no organic substitutes;
    (2) The substance’s manufacture, use, and disposal do not have adverse effects on the environment and are done in a manner compatible with organic handling….

    In other words: Mother Nature doesn’t always provide us the protection we need to farm successfully. In fact, She regularly supplies pestilence, disease and infection. If you’re an orchardist, the fungi are your mortal enemy and you have to spray fungicides or your orchard is doomed. So please just be careful with that copper sulfate, which can accumulate in the soil and is toxic to fish.

    Both MOFGA and the NOP make it clear that livestock must not be subject to the “routine use of synthetic medications.” Antibiotics cannot be used “for any reason.” And yet:

    Producers are prohibited from withholding treatment from a sick or injured animal; however, animals treated with a prohibited medication may not be sold as organic.

    So an animal treated with appropriate medications is thereby rendered unclean.

    OK, whatever. There are other ways of treating your animals that pass “organic” muster, according to “Raising Organic Livestock in Maine: MOFGA Accepted Health Practices, Products and Ingredients.” In case of mastitis, for instance, you could have the cow take “garlic internally, 1 or 2 whole bulbs twice a day” or put “dilute garlic in vulva” (using Nitrile gloves made in Thailand, one hopes). Then there are the “Homeopathic remedies, Bryonia, Phytolacca,” and other letters of the alphabet.

    However, you must not use Bag Balm for any reason whatsoever.

  12. mufion 07 Dec 2011 at 10:15 am

    locutusbrg: Well said (even though you restated my own comment).

    Karl: The problem with fossil-fuel dependency is not that petroleum is unnatural, but that it’s practically non-renewable, a major source of pollution, and is associated with political & economic volatility.

    Advocates of organic farming have (in my experience) capitalized on these valid concerns (as have “locavores” or those who themselves “beyond organic”), but the “organic” label is too poorly defined to warrant our equating it with low (let alone zero) petroleum use.

  13. Kawarthajonon 07 Dec 2011 at 12:11 pm

    There are many fallacies when it comes to organic farming, yes. There are also some benefits:

    1) Some of the pest control techniques are natural, effective and do not introduce poisons into our foodstream (i.e. alternating rows of root vegetables with weeds, planting garlic and other plants that repel pests, using animals, like chickens, to eat pests, etc…).

    2) While I agree that other “organic” pesticides can be poisonous to humans, one of their requirements is that they are biodegradable, unlike other pesticides like DDT that persist in the environment for generations. Being biodegradable is a good thing for our environment because these pesticides do not accumulate in the soil and water like good old DDT.

    3) Small organic farms tend to sell their produce locally, which greatly cuts down on the farm’s greenhouse gas emissions, as they reduce the need for transportation and expensive refridgeration.

    4) Small organic farms tend to recycle most of their waste, turning it back into fertilizer or feeding it to the animals (i.e. human food waste given to pigs).

    Overall, I find that skeptics are too quick to dismiss everything about organic farming, while they have been shown, in some aspects, to be a healthier practice from a global environmental point of view. Factory farming is very dangerous to the environment, pollutes the water ways (think of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico as an example) and use huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Over the long term, they are absolutely dependent on oil, which is a resource that will disappear in a few decades. With respect to organic farming, lets take what works and try to promote it.
    and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    With respect to the issue about whether organic food is healthier or not, I don’t believe it is from a nutrient point of view. When you take into consideration the global environmental impact, however, it is certainly healthier than factory farming, even if it isn’t perfect. Unfortunately, our capitalistic society will not allow for more sustainable large-scale farming, because it simply isn’t profitable. You can make much more money on farms of scale that use unsustainable practicies (even unsustainable organic farming), so we’re stuck with those for the time being, until we either regulate the hell out of the farming industry to force sustainability, or until we kill our planet and most of the humans (if not all) in the process.

  14. nybgruson 07 Dec 2011 at 1:08 pm

    1) Do you really think that is sustainable to feed a population of 7 billion that will continue to grow? If half the arable land is used as decoy (however effective) that effectively halves the production capacity.

    2) Does the fact that it is synthetic mean it must not be biodegradable? Is the only way something can possibly be biodegradable be to come from a “natural” source?

    3) Once again, do you think that small local farms will be sufficient to sustain a growing population of billions?

    4) Is this something that a large organic farm can’t do? Or any “non-organic” farm?

    Factory farming is very dangerous to the environment, pollutes the water ways

    Does it have to be? I don’t disagree that is has been, and that it is certainly easier to not care about the environment, but what is inherent to factory farming that it must be more polluting? (and of course, we must think of this in terms of pollution per person fed – not just absolute levels of pollution)

    until we either regulate the hell out of the farming industry to force sustainability

    That seems like a better goal than just calling something “organic” – and I believe that was the entire point of Dr. Novella’s post.

  15. foresteron 07 Dec 2011 at 1:20 pm

    I enjoyed this read, however…

    This article is flawed because it fails to consider human health on farms, and the more pertinent environmental concerns with industrial farming vs. organic. ie. enhanced fossil fuel consumption (ghg), eutriphication, soil degradation, biodiversity loss, etc. Without hearing the author at least acknowledge undeniable health concerns on things like banana plantations or other health concerns like bioaccumulation of persistent inorganic chemicals Its hard to open my mind to the authors perspective. I think you could say that it beats it around the bush on these issues by specifically relating health concerns to cancer from eating the produce. Cancer is not the only concern and more importantly, health effects due to consumption are the least of many critic’s concerns.

    Also, I guess as a result of being a student for 4 years I dont have much confidence in “research shows” or “scientists say” type of statements when such a controversial thing is being discussed. I have to ask who said this? Why? what is their authority or interest? It seems flawed that the article criticizes organic farming proponents for lacking credibility while in this very claim the article fails to offer its own credibility.

    I do agree that their is a false dichotomy between organic and non-organic. Organic does not equate to sustainable necessarily and it is not a panacea for food security threats as very significant threats to agricultural production are manifesting amidst a growing demand. Does the author think yields from organic farming are less. Different studies have found different results on this. Probably it contributes less to the largest threat to food security (climate change).

    My closing statement is that on such as issue its easy to get the fancy of other organic skeptics but if you want to persuade proponents of organic farming you will first have to fairly acknowledge their concerns and then offer substantiated reasoning as to why they are incorrect. Then leave it open for the reader to decide.

  16. nybgruson 07 Dec 2011 at 1:37 pm

    @tmac57:

    I took a read through your link. I don’t have the time or desire to really go in depth, but it all struck me very much as just cherry picking and re-framing the argument Kaptchuk-style.

    If you notice they take all this data and basically say “They concluded this was nothing, but look they ignored the 3 out of 11 data points that were positive.” They also play up the role of phenolics a lot.

    Essentially the data is heterogeneous and they focus on the positive aspects. The only bit that seems consistently different is the “total phenolic content” of organic foods. First off, I don’t know that there has been any robust data demonstrating plant phenolics are really that particularly “good.” But furthermore, the data show that organic foods have only a 10-20% increased total phenolics, depending on the food and how you look at it. No mention of whether this is clinically interesting or not.

    They also make a rather spurious claim that non-organic foods had higher levels of nitrogen in them. That’s not the spurious part – the claim that follows where they go on to say that it leads to higher levels of nitrosamine compounds which are known to cause cancer is spurious.

    It is true that nitrosamines are strongly implicated in gastric cancer and that the highly acidic environment of the stomach can produce them. However, the precursor in question is the nitrite (NO2-) form of nitrogen.

    However plants absorb nitrogen in the form of nitrate (NO3-) and ammonia (NH4+). Either way, this is only the absorption form and the plant then reduces it to NH2 for incorporation in biomolecules such as proteins, chlorophyll, and nucleotides. It does not, in any appreciable amounts, stay as nitrate nor ammonia, not that that particularly matters since the precursor to nitrosamines is nitrite anyways.

    So they claim that the higher N content of non-organic foods is a bad thing and means organic is better. However, they don’t address what form the nitrogen is and make the leap to nitrosamines as if they were a foregone conclusion. From my perspective, a higher nitrogen content is actually a good thing because that means the plant has been making more structural and functional components – i.e. a higher catabolic rate which, to me, would mean its got more planty goodness in it.

    In that same paragraph, they note that phosphorus and titratable acid levels are higher in organic crops and simply assert that is a good thing as well, once again without any reference or explanation as to why that may be. And if you want to talk to Robert O. Young, he would probably disagree since according to him acid causes all cancers. But I digress.

    I can think of no particular reason why increased level of phosphorus or titratable acids would be a good thing (or a particularly bad thing either) for human consumption. Clinically speaking phosphate deficiency is something that only happens in specific (and serious) pathologies. And I can’t imagine what difference a titratable acid makes in terms of ingestion, save perhaps a few less protons needing to be pumped out to maintain a low stomach pH during digestion.

    The rest of the article seems to be along the same lines, as are a couple of links within that I clicked on.

  17. MikeBon 07 Dec 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Kawarthajon:

    “2) While I agree that other “organic” pesticides can be poisonous to humans, one of their requirements is that they are biodegradable, unlike other pesticides like DDT that persist in the environment for generations. Being biodegradable is a good thing for our environment because these pesticides do not accumulate in the soil and water like good old DDT.”

    Why are you comparing “organic” pesticides to DDT, which is banned for agricultural use? All pesticides on the market, as far as I know, break down. It is a requirement for registration.

    Then there’s copper sulfate, an “organically-approved,” synthetic fungicide that persists in the soil. But organic farmers continue to use it because they have always done so.

  18. ccbowerson 07 Dec 2011 at 5:47 pm

    “There is another reason why some folks favor organically farmed produce, which is that they believe that organic farming is less reliant on fossil fuels than conventional farming”

    I’m not sure if this is true, all else being equal, but all else is rarely equal. Shipping organic produce half way around the world instead of nonorganic locally grown changes the equation greatly. In other words “organic” is a poor surrogate marker given the many other factors.

  19. ccbowerson 07 Dec 2011 at 5:57 pm

    One thing I have brought up to a friend of mine (who was practically raised with the naturalistic fallacy) is that the concerns about pesticides being an important cause of cancer does not fit with our observations. If pesticides in fruits and vegetables were an important cause of cancer, then people who ate the most fruits and vegetables would have higher rates of cancer, but the opposite is often found to be true.

    Now perhaps one could argue that the fruits and vegetables overcompensate for the assumed pesticide effect, but even with this we are worried about a very low risk. So low, that I cannot justify worrying about it at the supermarket.

  20. ebohlmanon 07 Dec 2011 at 10:41 pm

    OK, whatever. There are other ways of treating your animals that pass “organic” muster, according to “Raising Organic Livestock in Maine: MOFGA Accepted Health Practices, Products and Ingredients.” In case of mastitis, for instance, you could have the cow take “garlic internally, 1 or 2 whole bulbs twice a day” or put “dilute garlic in vulva” (using Nitrile gloves made in Thailand, one hopes).

    I’m reminded of a story from one of the James Herriot books where James and Siegfried visit an equine client who announces that, in his attempt to treat his horse for something or other, he’s been shoving several onions a day up the horse’s rectum. He notes that the horse “seems to be a little unsteady on his feet” and does not particularly appreciate it when Siegfried suggests that if he were to shove several onions up his (the client’s) rectum, he (the client) would probably also be rather unsteady on his feet.

    I didn’t realize this sort of thing had become so well accepted.

  21. Mlemaon 08 Dec 2011 at 12:53 am

    I try not to be an elitist about it, but I prefer organic food. I eat lemons, skin and all. When I read about children sickened by pesticide clouds wafting near their schools from nearby lemon groves, I realized I needed to go organic on the lemons, for my own sake and for those kids.
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18681428/ns/health-childrens_health/t/pesticides-may-be-making-kids-sick-school/#.TuBGqU9Tkdo

    And when I read from the USDA definition:
    Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.”
    I knew I didn’t want to eat food that had been fertilized with sewage sludge.
    http://sludgenews.org/about/
    I grew up in a rural area, with cow pastures bordering my backyard. I was familiar with the smell of cow manure, horse manure, rabbit manure, etc. But in the years just before I moved away, I became familiar with a smell so foul it hindered breathing! Trucks of what I now believe to be sewer sludge were spread on the cornfields down the road. That corn was used to feed dairy cows. Hopefully soil to corn to cow absorbed some of whatever foul stuff was in that crap. But who knows?

    I appreciate having the dichotomy in the “organic” label pointed out to me. I was unaware that some practices that allow use of that label may not really fit the “spirit” from which it arose, which I believe was to nurture those things we all want: sustainability, low environmental impact, etc. When I saw that the study on soybeans using mineral oil, a light went off in my head: the same people looking to improve their health by substituting soybean protein for meat protein would also be looking for organic soybeans, believing them to be healthier. But to maximize profits and grow soybeans on a large scale and call them “organic”, it seem the industry is just trying to carry on industrial-farming while still meeting whatever minimal change in practice will allow them to label their food “organic”.

    I will continue to buy organic (for the most part, that is – I buy conventional local food items that are on the “safe” list, as far as pesticides go) But I will look for local sources of organic food now. Thank you!

    Here’s the “safe” and “unsafe” list:
    http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/news/20110613/apples-top-12-foods-with-most-pesticides

  22. MikeBon 08 Dec 2011 at 4:40 am

    Mlema, your last link is an article about the Environmental Working Group’s egregious “Dirty Dozen” list.

    Not to put too fine a point on it: The EWG are liars.

    the Environmental Working Group (EWG) manage to scare people away from buying fresh produce by publishing their annual “Dirty Dozen” list. This year, apples topped the list. I won’t even provide a link to this bit of rubbish. The best advice is to completely ignore it!

    http://blog.sustainablog.org/2011/06/dont-let-the-environmental-working-group-diminish-your-quality-of-life/

  23. MikeBon 08 Dec 2011 at 4:41 am

    I forgot to put quotations around the excerpt above, so they look like my words. Sorry.

  24. Steven Novellaon 08 Dec 2011 at 7:57 am

    forester – I made the scope and focus of the article clear. It’s not fair to criticize it for not addressing issues I said I was not going to address.

    Further, your criticism that I used vague statements like “research shows” is also not fair, given that I linked to published research and reviews of that research to back up my claims.

  25. Kawarthajonon 08 Dec 2011 at 10:49 am

    nybgrus, you raise some good points. Let me respond to them:

    “1) Do you really think that is sustainable to feed a population of 7 billion that will continue to grow? If half the arable land is used as decoy (however effective) that effectively halves the production capacity. ”

    No, I don’t think that small-scale organic farming is the way to go. I think we are in real trouble either way – if we continue to factory farm we will support a population that is way too large, which will then crash dramatically when we run out of fossil fuels and when we pollute large tracks of land to such an extent that they are unusable. Either way, we are going to have to reduce the global population if we want to maintain arable land and survive as a species. It doesn’t look like this is going to happen in many parts of the world and we already have the examples of Haiti and Rwanda to see what happens when people overwhelm the natural environment.

    “2) Does the fact that it is synthetic mean it must not be biodegradable? Is the only way something can possibly be biodegradable be to come from a “natural” source?”

    No, just because it is synthetic doesn’t mean that is isn’t biodegradable. However, organic farming requires that all pesticides are biodegradable, which factory farming does not. There are many pesticides on the market that bioaccumulate, reduce the health of the soil and impact species at risk.

    “3) Once again, do you think that small local farms will be sufficient to sustain a growing population of billions?”

    No. We’re f#cked any way you look at it, given the size of our current population and the growth projections. I was not proposing to turn all of our farms into small local farms, but factory farms are not the answer either. I just don’t think it is helpful to dismiss organic farming outright and that we need to take what works in any farming practice and develop sustainable farms.

    “4) Is this something that a large organic farm can’t do? Or any “non-organic” farm?”

    I’m not exactly sure what you’re asking, but I’ll try to answer it anyway. Any large-scale farm that uses heavy amounts of fossil fuels is unsustainable, even if it is organic. In the long or even medium term, fossil fuels will run out and if we maintain the current level of population growth and support it using fossil fuels, when that supply runs out we are f#cked.

    “Factory farming is very dangerous to the environment, pollutes the water ways
    Does it have to be? I don’t disagree that is has been, and that it is certainly easier to not care about the environment, but what is inherent to factory farming that it must be more polluting? (and of course, we must think of this in terms of pollution per person fed – not just absolute levels of pollution)”

    There are a number of things that are inherently problematic about factory farming, including: the vulnerability of a mono-crop plantation, which requires huge amounts of pesticides; the heavy use of fossil fuels as both fuel to run the equipment and as fertilizer, a supply that will run out in the medium or long term; damage to the soil by mono-crop plantations (i.e. only using one crop suck out the nutrients and does not replace them), which requires heavy use of fertilizers, which in term creates more pollution in waterways; and the use of irrigation, which often takes water from aquifers (which has a very high level of dissolved minerals) and pollutes the soil with minerals, which then concentrate in the soil and make future agriculture on that land impossible (think Australia).

    “until we either regulate the hell out of the farming industry to force sustainability
    That seems like a better goal than just calling something “organic” – and I believe that was the entire point of Dr. Novella’s post.”

    I don’t think I ever advocated to call sustainable agriculture “organic”, I just said that we can’t dismiss everything that organic agriculture outright. We need to take what works and make our agriculture sustainable.

  26. MikeBon 08 Dec 2011 at 11:05 am

    Kawarthajon:

    “However, organic farming requires that all pesticides are biodegradable…”

    This is patently false. Copper sulfate, and organically certified fungicide, in not biodegradable.

    Neither is the plastic mulch used by so many organic farms.

  27. Kawarthajonon 08 Dec 2011 at 11:12 am

    MikeB wrote:

    “Why are you comparing “organic” pesticides to DDT, which is banned for agricultural use? All pesticides on the market, as far as I know, break down. It is a requirement for registration.”

    DDT is widely used in the world, just not in Western nations. It is still used in one of the biggest countries in the world, India, for agriculture and it is still used in Africa for mosquito control, although at much lower amounts. There are also a number of other persistent organic compounds that are still being used in agriculture, both in the west and in other parts of the world. Typically, persistent organic compounds are regulated in western nations if they are used for agriculture, but there is widespread abuse of this regulation and they are not well regulated in third world nations. Even if they are only used in southern countries, they can still make their way to the north and impact our environment.

    “Then there’s copper sulfate, an “organically-approved,” synthetic fungicide that persists in the soil. But organic farmers continue to use it because they have always done so.”

    Copper-sulfate is used as a pesticide, but it biodegrades easily. It is toxic to humans in large quantities, but not in small quantities.

  28. MikeBon 08 Dec 2011 at 12:17 pm

    “It is toxic to humans in large quantities, but not in small quantities.”

    This is the same for almost all pesticides, organically certified or not.

    The fact is, organic farmers use pesticides–Rotenone, Pyganic, copper sulfate, etc. They are toxic, environmentally hazardous and broad-spectrum.

  29. nybgruson 08 Dec 2011 at 12:21 pm

    @kawarthajon:

    It sounds like you are taking our current situation and assuming things can’t change. I disagree. I think that we can and will find ways to make things reasonably sustainable.

    Well, let me rephrase that. We have to. Population control won’t happen. We will continue becoming more and more populated. Fossil fuels will run out, I agree. But the point is scientists are working on it. They have to.

    I agree that we should take the good bits of organic and expound upon that. I disagree that factory farming need be unsustainable. Every critique you talk about is the current (and I agree not so good) state of things. But, for example, factory farming doesn’t have to be monoculture. It also doesn’t have to rely on fossil fuels (but that is a whole separate conversation).

    The point is that no one here is writing off everything organic out of hand. We are just saying it doesn’t really mean much. In terms of what you are consuming, there is no nutritional difference. In terms of sustainability – well, I think it has been shown that is hit or miss.

    Also, copper sulfate is not biodegradable. That doesn’t even make sense in the context of what it is. Copper sulfate cannot break down into anything else in the environment (certainly not anything less toxic). The chemistry is not too complicated on this one. And the toxicity is pretty high actually. 11mg/kg specifically. So for someone like me 1 gram would be enough to induce toxicity. Considering that it must accumulate in soil, yeah, that is not such a great thing. Once again an illustration that just because it is organic doesn’t actually mean what people think it means.

  30. tmac57on 08 Dec 2011 at 1:12 pm

    I just came across a book recommended by Bill Gates,that seems like It might address the issues surrounding the organic vs coventional farming debate.It’s titled ‘Tomorrow’s Table
    Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food’
    Pamela C. Ronald and R. W. Adamchak

    http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Agriculture/BiotechnologyPlantBreeding/?view=usa&ci=9780195301755

    Pamela Ronald also has what appears to be a good science based blog about similar issues here:

    http://scienceblogs.com/tomorrowstable/

  31. MikeBon 08 Dec 2011 at 1:33 pm

    I second the Ronald book–for the parts on genetic modification. It’s a wonderful introduction to the benefits of GE technologies.

    The stuff on “organics,” however (written by her husband), is the usual special pleading and selective thinking.

  32. sonicon 08 Dec 2011 at 1:51 pm

    The review cited-
    Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review.
    Am J Clin Nutr 2009 Sep…
    Found that–

    “conventional foods had higher nitrogen, lower phosphorus and lower titratable acidity than the organic.”

    They then claim– “It is unlikely that consumption of these nutrients at the levels reported in organic foods in this study provide any health benefit.”

    But what study shows that?

    As I understand it elevated nitrogen in food is considered a hazard.

    http://www.j-alz.com/press/2009/20090706.html
    “A new study by researchers at Rhode Island Hospital has found a substantial link between increased levels of nitrates in our environment and food with increased deaths from diseases, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes mellitus and Parkinson’s. The study was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (Volume 17:3 July 2009).”

    Nitrates are known cancer causing agents–

    So here’s where I need help- the studies show there are differences between the two. The claim is that it doesn’t matter seems extraordinary to me– and there is evidence that it does matter.
    Shouldn’t the person making the extraordinary claim (‘the difference between eating these different things doesn’t matter’) have to show that instead of asserting it?

  33. Kawarthajonon 08 Dec 2011 at 2:55 pm

    nybrus:

    I thought that I had read that copper sulfate was biodegradable, but now I can’t find the source. I will have to concede that point based on my lack of knowledge about it. If it isn’t biodegradable, it shouldn’t be used (although it is in my deck wood).

    I think we will have to agree to disagree on the issue of population. I don’t think that science can solve the problem of replacing fossil fuels. They are simply too efficient and once they run out, we are in real trouble and I think that there will be major starvation in the world because of agriculture’s dependence on it. Our whole global economy (agriculture included) is entirely based on fossil fuels. Take out that lynch pin and the whole system collapses. If scientists can find a solution, great. I just don’t think that the Earth can sustain a population over 1 or 2 billion for very long without fossil fuels. Without population control, we are all going to be in a lot of trouble over the next 100 years or so. The population has doubled only in the last 16 (?) years. I believe that if we didn’t have fossil fuels, our population never would have grown so large, even if we had developed other sources of power, like solar and nuclear. We are like bacteria in a petri dish and there is only so much food to go around. I have to mention that I tend to be on the pessimistic side.

    Factory is problematic by its very nature. If you want sustainable farming, it can’t be done in factory-style mass production. I don’t care what you call sustainable farming, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. Profit is too big an incentive for companies to pursue sustainable farming practices.

  34. DevoutCatalyston 08 Dec 2011 at 3:26 pm

    Vat raised beef. It’s What’s for Dinner. One day. Maybe.

  35. nybgruson 08 Dec 2011 at 3:30 pm

    @sonic:

    As I understand it elevated nitrogen in food is considered a hazard.

    Not quite.

    Nitrates are known cancer causing agents

    Actually it is nitrites, as I pointed out above.

    And even it it is nitrates, as I pointed out above, they do not exist in that form in plants. So absolute nitrogen content is a relatively useless metric.

    The claim is that it doesn’t matter seems extraordinary to me– and there is evidence that it does matter.

    I addressed this in my post above. The study you cite references all nitrates/nitrites/nitrosamines in the environment. Not just foods. And there is also a correlation between the decrease in number of pirates and golbal warming.

    Shouldn’t the person making the extraordinary claim (‘the difference between eating these different things doesn’t matter’) have to show that instead of asserting it?

    Yes, but you have the wrong extraordinary claim. The claim that nitrogen incorporated into plants is leading to nitrosamines and cancer is the extraordinary claim. The claim that increased phosphorus and titratable acids are good for you is the extraordinary claim.

    So if you want to demonstrate an effect, you have the onus. The default assumption is that outside of deficiency, phosphorus in the diet is of little import and that nitrogen in plants (i.e. it is in EVERYTHING we eat) is also not carcinogenic. To claim otherwise bears the burden of proof.

    Bear in mind it is important to distinguish between the nitrogen contained in a tomato and the nitrogen in nitrate fertilizers and the nitrite in preserved foods. They are not the same.

  36. nybgruson 08 Dec 2011 at 3:36 pm

    @Kawarthajon:

    Yeah, i disagree with you on a fundamental basis.

    Fossil fuels are not efficient. They are cheap and easy. There is a vast difference there.

    Debate over how much population the earth can sustain is moot. Nobody can possibly have a good answer. However, the trend is such that every time we hit a new number, somebody says the next number up is impossible. Yet we manage somehow.

    And your critiques are based not on the reality of science and progress, but on a (admittedly pessimistic) outlook on human behavior and culture. I actually agree with you that in general if humanity and civilization keeps their priorities screwed up that decline to obvlivion is inevitable. Just look at the state of the US right now.

    However, I am arguing that there is and will come a choice – and at that point greed will be outweighed by survival and I am more the optimist in thinking that science and humanity will find a way. It may be an extremely hard road – I personally think there will be very significant infrastructure collapse in the US and very possibly within my lifetime it will resemble something like Russia in 1993. But based on history and with a dash of optimism, I think those that have the priorities right and understand the science and can make the right decisions will rise from the ashes (maybe not in my lifetime).

    I agree with you that we should make better choices now and proactively. But even failing that, I doubt the human race will go extinct. And as I said, the choice lies with continuing on somehow or extinction. If the latter it won’t matter anyways. If the former, then, at some point, your arguments (valid as they are right now) will bear little weight in the calculus of policy and society building.

  37. sonicon 08 Dec 2011 at 4:56 pm

    nybgrus-
    Your point is taken- but you seem to overlook an important fact (at least I think it is a fact)–
    Nitrates are converted to nitrites when humans metabolize the food– in adults it’s done by the saliva, in infants it’s done in the GI tract.
    While it is clear that some of this is OK (and a good thing) it is unclear that increasing the nitrate and therefore the nitrite levels is a good thing.
    Is there any evidence that increasing nitrite consumption (as nitrates are turned into nitrites as we eat) is a good thing? There is some evidence indicating it is a bad thing.

    Kawarthajon–
    I grow food without using any fossil fuels. No motors, no machines, no oil or gas inputs.
    There is more human time spent using these methods, but if the world is full of people, then what else are they going to be doing? Not flying to a global summit on how there aren’t any fossil fuels left– that’s for sure :-)
    The world will change and the activities of the average individual will change- but I think there can be a lot more people on earth without mass extinction (eskimos do fine in very cold conditions without using fossil fuels– no?).

  38. nybgruson 08 Dec 2011 at 6:29 pm

    @sonic:

    It is sort of a fact.

    First off, according to the sources I could find (and 3 of them agree) the average US diet includes about 75-100mg of nitrate. The body endogenously produces ~62mg according to the same sources.

    Nitrate can and is reduced to nitrite in the saliva and a bit more in the gut as well. But it relies on bacteria to do so. Only about 5% of the nitrate ingested is converted in the saliva. The remainder is variable – under normal physiologic conditions it is rather low.

    The real point I was trying to make though is that the predominant form of nitrogen that exists in plants is neither nitrate nor nitrite but NH2. The latter has no deleterious effects.

    So saying that the non-organic versions have more nitrogen is a meaningless statement.

    I do agree, however, that otherwise incidental ingestion of nitrates is not a good idea. So nitrate fertilizers could in fact lead to increased amounts of intake that could plausibly be negative. However, washing your produce before eating it mitigates this. If you want to discuss fertilizer runoff into water, that is a whole different story and not within the scope of this conversation.

    So in sum, nitrate and nitrite consumption is a negative thing and is very much so linked with gastric cancer. However, the nitrate and nitrite levels you can reasonably expect to get from foods is negligible and the statement made in question is meaningless, as I have said above.

    It is further compounded by the fact that they tout phosphorus and titratable acid levels being higher in organic foods as a positive. Once again – there is no indication that this is the case.

    Considering the lack of precision regarding how they classified nitrogen in plants, coupled with the (IMO) spurious touting of phosphorus and titratable acid, it seems to me very much to fit a pattern of cherry picking where they found the only consistent differences between organic and non-organic and made each positive and negative accordingly.

  39. tmac57on 08 Dec 2011 at 6:37 pm

    Kawarthajon-I think that maybe you are being overly pesimistic.There are thousands of people around the world that are on the case of fossil fuel elimination/reduction,and they are making real progress.

    “They are simply too efficient and once they run out, we are in real trouble and I think that there will be major starvation in the world because of agriculture’s dependence on it.”

    For a different take on this, have a look at this report:

    http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/footprint/climate_carbon_energy/energy_solutions/renewable_energy/sustainable_energy_report/

    I’m sure that people can find fault with this,but it shows that there are forces out there that are trying to get a handle on the problem,and present solutions,not just lament the situation.

  40. daedalus2uon 08 Dec 2011 at 9:11 pm

    The connection of dietary nitrate and nitrite with cancer is purely hypothetical and from in vitro results. There is no good in vivo data to support it.

    Nitrite has been fed to rats and mice in drinking water at levels up to 3,000 ppm for 2 years. There was a decrease in in cancer in male mice (and increased lifespan) and an equivocal increase in female mice (with no change in lifespan).

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12563346

    They fed rats 5,000 ppm nitrite in drinking water and at 70 days plasma and gastric nitrosamines were undetectable.

    This is a gigantic dose of nitrite.

    In the nitric oxide research community, it is now pretty much consensus that a large part of the positive health effects of green leafy vegetables are due to the nitrate they contain, a few thousand ppm usually. If nitrate was a carcinogen, then vegetarians would be dropping like flies from cancer.

  41. nybgruson 08 Dec 2011 at 9:45 pm

    @daedalus:

    You are correct – I was giving the benefit of the doubt since it wasn’t the thrust of my point anyways.

    However, according to what I know (and I haven’t researched this in depth) nitrosamines do indeed correlate in vivo with gastric cancer. However, this is primarily from high intakes of nitrites and nitrosamines directly from preserved and smoked foods. At least, this is the classic correlation we are taught for the medical boards re: the higher incidence of gastric cancer in countries like Japan and Russia where such foods are consumed much more frequently.

  42. sonicon 09 Dec 2011 at 12:09 pm

    nybgrus- daedalus2u-
    So the foods are different.
    This doesn’t mean one is better than the other- but it does mean they are different.
    We changed our food supply without a though test to see if it was a good idea. Given what I see around me– an epidemic of morbidly obese malnourished people– people who didn’t exist much before the food source was altered without test– gee, I won’t have what he’s having… :-)

    Actually the reason I do organic is because of the soil I grow in. Using the hyper-organic methods I was taught have improved the soil beyond recognition (the guy I work with thinks the regs are too loose). And that is really why I support the thing– the soil.

  43. MikeBon 09 Dec 2011 at 12:24 pm

    “Actually the reason I do organic is because of the soil I grow in. Using the hyper-organic methods I was taught have improved the soil beyond recognition (the guy I work with thinks the regs are too loose). And that is really why I support the thing– the soil.”

    I’m AGAINST the organic cult, and yet I, too, work at improving my soil, and have done so for the last twenty-five years.

    Why do you assume that “organic” always means the farmer “supports…the soil” and that anyone who doesn’t declare himself “organic” isn’t interested in supporting soil?

    Organic/conventional is a dichotomy that must die.

  44. tmac57on 09 Dec 2011 at 4:53 pm

    Can we all agree that farming that is sustainable and with a low environmental impact, based on methods that are strictly science based is a good idea?

  45. DevoutCatalyston 09 Dec 2011 at 6:14 pm

    If it becomes possible to grow beef in the lab, which is right now being attempted, might we also try to grow carrot flesh in the lab? And so on. Maybe farming needn’t exist at all. Would eliminating farming altogether be a good idea? Farms are ugly compared to wildernesses. Save the family lab.

  46. sonicon 10 Dec 2011 at 3:00 pm

    MikeB-
    I’m glad to hear you are interested in your soil. It seemed that you were from what you wrote before- but I now know you are concerned about soil fertility for sure.
    Soil fertility and conditioning are major concerns for me too. I find the science interesting, the work enjoyable, and the results– taking a piece of dirt where nothing will grow and turning it into productive soil- rewarding.
    But you know what I’m talking abut… :-)

    I would say that the current designation of organic is far from optimum. I would say it is not meaningless. Perhaps a ‘sustainable soil practices’ label would be appropriate. Certainly it is that aspect of farm practices that is of most interest going forward.
    How do we make the soil more and more fertile?

    tmac57-
    You’re wording isn’t bad, but you will have to make it way more complicated before it can show up as a USDA regulation… :-)

  47. daedalus2uon 10 Dec 2011 at 9:43 pm

    Sonic, the change in diet that has accompanied the epidemic of obesity was not a change from “organic” to conventionally fertilized. It was a change from relatively expensive, simple and less processed food to cheap, bulk, nutrient dense food.

    HFCS made from “organic” maize is indistinguishable from HFCS made from high yielding Roundup ready maize fertilized with synthetic ammonia, triple superphosphate and muriate of potash. No one makes HFCS from organic maize because organic maize is a lot more expensive than the cheapest bulk maize available.

  48. ccbowerson 11 Dec 2011 at 12:48 pm

    “We changed our food supply without a though test to see if it was a good idea.”

    This has always been the case. Sounds a bit like romanticizing the past. In nearly every way we are better off than we were, and our lifespans keep increasing. I’m sure we didn’t “test” the concept of agriculture, do you object? I agree that testing can be helpful, but you are overstating the recent changes

    “Given what I see around me– an epidemic of morbidly obese malnourished people– people who didn’t exist much before the food source was altered without test…”

    Your perspective again is off. Certainly there is more obesity, but if you are seeing more malnourished people, I question your judgement. In places in which there is an increase in obesity there is less… no- much much much less malnourshment. Notice that scurvy, beri beri are things that are only read about in text books for most US physicians (among other places).

    Which types of malnourshments are you talking about? Can you honestly say that any of your examples have to do with food? Of course not, we have access to more variety and amounts of foods than ever before. The major problem with obesity in the US (among other countries )seems to be the ease in which high calorie foods can be obtained and consumed. The downsides are diabetes and other obesity related conditions. The plus side is LESS malnutrition.

  49. sonicon 11 Dec 2011 at 4:21 pm

    daedalus2u-
    Turns out corn can be grown organically just as effectively as otherwise–
    http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/july05/organic.farm.vs.other.ssl.html

    I think you are right HFCS is HFCS. And too much of that seems to be a problem.

    As far as the problem of obesity– I don’t know why it is that when I was younger a person weighing 300 lbs was called a circus freak and today it is normal to weigh that much. I’ll bet it has something to do with the food.
    One change is from foods higher in vitamin c and phosphorous for those higher in nitrates. It is not the only change.

    I’ll be part of the control group if I can—

    ccbowers-
    I consider anyone grossly overweight malnourished. Proper nourishment leads to good health.
    And air pollution has been increasing for years– as well as longevity. Does that mean we should pollute more?
    And the percentage of humans malnourished- hunger- has increased since 1950. (But I don’t think that is the fault of the farmers.)

  50. tmac57on 11 Dec 2011 at 6:55 pm

    I have to agree with Sonic on What constitues malnutrition.

    “Malnutrition is the condition that results from taking an unbalanced diet in which certain nutrients are lacking, in excess (too high an intake), or in the wrong proportions.[1][2]
    A number of different nutrition disorders may arise, depending on which nutrients are under or overabundant in the diet.”

    It’s not just about lack of food.There are probably quite a few obese people in the US,who are lacking certain nutrients,despite their high caloric intake.Two people in my family,eat virtually no vegetables other than potatoes,but are quite obese.I would not be surprised if they were also malnourished.

  51. ccbowerson 11 Dec 2011 at 8:59 pm

    “I consider anyone grossly overweight malnourished”

    Point taken. I interpreted your use of the term “malnourished” differently based upon your other comments regarding the nutritional content of food. You seem to be of the opinion (misguided and unfounded in my view) that modern produce and foods are fundamentally harmful and damaging and this is largely responsible for modern health problems. Sounds like the naturalistic fallacy to me.

    I have a hard time jumping to that conclusion given that there are much more powerful and likely explanations (e.g. the ease of obtaining food leading to overeating leading to obesity, for example, as opposed to: something fundamnetally wrong with modern foods leading to obesity)

  52. ccbowerson 11 Dec 2011 at 9:08 pm

    “It’s not just about lack of food.There are probably quite a few obese people in the US,who are lacking certain nutrients,despite their high caloric intake.”

    This concept is promoted with little evidence by those who want to sell alarmist “health” books, but I think its largely untrue. Certainly there are pockets of deficiencies within subgroups of the population, but it (IMO) has little to do with what we are talking about here. There are certain malabsorption issues with certain vitamin Bs in elderly, and in those with GI condtions, etc, etc, but the idea that Americans are a bunch of fat people largely deprived of many important nutrients is largely unfounded.

    I am certainly all for people eating more fruits and vegetables and less junk, but unless you can provide evidence and give examples (of the overweight nutritionally deprived epidemic), it sounds like unfounded beliefs tied to naturalistic appeals.

  53. tmac57on 12 Dec 2011 at 10:38 am

    Ccbowers: Well,even if you don’t buy the idea that obese individuals are lacking key nutrients,obesity itself has a host of negative health consequences:
    http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/causes/index.html

    So if obesity falls within the malnutrition catagory,then yeah,there are a lot of malnoruished people in the US.Cheap,high caloric food that is easily obtained at fast food chains,and markets,are probably making the problem worse,if not the actual cause of the problem.

  54. nybgruson 12 Dec 2011 at 11:29 am

    I think the point ccbowers is trying to make (and I agree with) is that obese people overall do not have a higher incidence of clinical vitamin and nutrient deficiences.

    I suppose technically speaking the roots of the words mean what tmac57 has been saying. “mal” = “bad” so “bad nourishment” could be taken to mean eating junk food and getting fat. The dictionary definitions (various ones I looked at) essentially all include both versions – poorly nourished as well as under nourished.

    In medicine, we often lazily use them interchangeably, but there is actually a term and usage of “under nourished” as well.

    So lets suffice it to say that ccbowers was referring to under nourished (which can mean calories or vitamins/minerals) and that tmac57 was referring to the more proper definition of malnourished.

  55. sonicon 12 Dec 2011 at 2:50 pm

    tmac57-nybgrus- ccbowers-
    That’s right– ‘mal’ means ‘bad’.
    Thought experiment— If I told you that I have a diet that will assure you become morbidly obese– you really want to call that proper nourishment?

    ccbowers-
    I don’t like the categories– but-
    I don’t know that conventionally grown food is more or less healthy than organically grown food.
    How could I? It hasn’t really been tested.

  56. ccbowerson 12 Dec 2011 at 3:47 pm

    “So if obesity falls within the malnutrition catagory,then yeah,there are a lot of malnoruished people in the US.Cheap,high caloric food that is easily obtained at fast food chains,and markets,are probably making the problem worse,if not the actual cause of the problem.”

    Yes. I agreed with Sonic on the first point in a previous comment (after I rethought his use of the term), and made the second point myself. It appears that obesity is primarily cause by excessive caloric consumption, and things that make higher caloric consumption easier are problematic. I think it is more than simply fast foods, the highest caloric foods are in conventional restaurants with large proportions. It is not hard to find “meals” or “appetizers” that contain more than an entire day’s worth of calories. Although less important for weight loss, cardiovascular fitness is important for other reasons, and this is underappreciated I think when we are so focused on weight-obesity.

  57. tmac57on 12 Dec 2011 at 6:09 pm

    ccbowers- I agree that being overweight is only part of the problem,and some people can be very fit and still overweight,but generally healthy.
    An earlier post of mine got lost,but basically it concerned the idea that if we accept the research that a healthy diet should consist of a variety of foods, which should include fruits and vegetables,and if you have a segment of the population that eschews those categories,would it be likely that those people might be considered undernourished? I don’t know the answer,but if I had a child that ate that way,I would be concerned that they were missing something important in their diet.Might that be malnutrition too?

  58. ccbowerson 12 Dec 2011 at 7:12 pm

    “I don’t know the answer,but if I had a child that ate that way,I would be concerned that they were missing something important in their diet.Might that be malnutrition too?”

    Although I understand the concern, I think that that particular worry could be better used elsewhere. I guess I do try to encourage variety and emphasize fruits and vegetables with my children, but my rationalization is that I am promoting potentially healthier lifestyle of eating that will impact how they eat as adults. This is not because I worry about specific nutritional deficiencies, but because diet can potentially impact cancer and cardiovascular risk (which are the leading causes of death overall for adults). This effect may be small for some things, but it is one of the modifiable risk factors.

    For my worry while they are children… physical safety is major concern since accidents is the leading cause of death for children. The reason why I mention this is because, as skeptics, we should be weighing our concerns to the actual risks despite the subjective feeling of risk (e.g. worrying about random kidnappers, but not worrying about speeding all over town in a motorcycle)

  59. nybgruson 12 Dec 2011 at 7:40 pm

    if we accept the research that a healthy diet should consist of a variety of foods, which should include fruits and vegetables,and if you have a segment of the population that eschews those categories,would it be likely that those people might be considered undernourished?

    The assumpion implicit and necessary in that statement is that only a varied diet that includes fruits and veg would prevent undernourishment.

  60. tmac57on 13 Dec 2011 at 10:36 am

    nybgrus- So you would say that a person that does not eat a varied diet that includes fruit and vegetables is not likely to be undernourished?

    I have heard that some populations (Inuit for ex) can thrive without a varied diet,but I don’t know how well their overall health has been studied. I am more concerned about whether the typical diet of a meat and potatoes type American who avoids fruit and veg is causing future health problems.

    Again,I do not know the answer,but why does mainstream research on nutrition suggest that we should be eating a balanced diet,if there is no good reason to do so? What am I missing here?

  61. nybgruson 13 Dec 2011 at 1:32 pm

    So you would say that a person that does not eat a varied diet that includes fruit and vegetables is not likely to be undernourished?

    No. If you were to take the plethora of diets that a person could theoretically eat, and compare all the rest with a varied diet w/ fruit and veg, then of course, the likelihood that all other diets combined were not as effective overall becomes a truism.

    However, your assumption (which I wasn’t actually saying is wrong) was that being devoid of fruits and veg and eating a monotonous diet means you must be under nourished. As I said – on the whole, that may be correct. But only when averaging in all the potentially terrible diets a person can consume.

    But especially in today’s society, in terms of clinical under nourishment (which we have agreed upon mean a clinical deficiency in calories and/or vitamins/minerals/nutrients) one can eat a very monotonous and devoid of fresh foods diet and still be quite well nourished.

    For example, eating nothing but beef jerky, Total breakfast cereal, and bacon and eggs would certainly provide all the calories you need and (since Total, like many foods these days is fortified with vitamins and minerals) likely all the nutrients you would need as well.

    You may still be obese and suffer myriad other health problems (and arguably be malnourished as we stated above) but you will not necessarily be under nourished.

    So to me, the research you speak of (and the “common knowledge”) that a varied diets w/ fruit and veg are the “healthiest” to me just indicates that said diet is simply the most convenient way for the average person to not be under nourished and also likely not be malnourished.

    So what I would say you are missing, since you asked, is merely that the nutrition research is giving the easiest and likeliest diet to be well nourished, but not stating it is the only way to be well nourished. And when you break it down to mal- and under- nourished, then it becomes easier to pick nits and find diets that lend to one but not the other (though I suppose we can agree that under- would be a subset of mal- such that all under-nourished people are mal-nourished, but the contrapositive is not true).

    So I wasn’t trying to say you are wrong, merely to prevent you from narrowly focusing on only one diet to the exclusion of others which may well be just as effective for some people.

  62. tmac57on 13 Dec 2011 at 4:46 pm

    nybgrus- Thanks for taking the time to engage my questions. It seems that nutrition research has a lot to unravel still. The early hope for antioxidants,and much of the vitamin supplementation studies,show that the picture is more complicated than first thought.What they always seem to come back to is that it is the complex mix of nutrients in especially fruits and vegetables,but all foods that need to be present to get the postitve benefits that seem to correlate with certain diets.

  63. ccbowerson 13 Dec 2011 at 6:35 pm

    “It seems that nutrition research has a lot to unravel still. The early hope for antioxidants,and much of the vitamin supplementation studies,show that the picture is more complicated than first thought.”

    I totally agree, and I like the progression of the recent comments. There is much hype, and overinterpretation of basic science in advice given regarding these topics. Its hard for me to forget the last overhyped concept (e.g. your antioxidant example, or vitamin du jour) before jumping on the next bandwagon, running way ahead of the science.

  64. nybgruson 14 Dec 2011 at 11:50 am

    indeed. And I apologize if my replies are a bit terse – I am currently studying for my medical board exam which I take in 9 days, but I still enjoy reading my usual science blogs over my morning coffee before jumping into it.

    As you both have pointed out, there are all sorts of fads and ideas and bend and stretch diets one way or another. Often they try and play on the anthropological or evolutionary “history” of our species (ignoring the fact that the evidence is slim and we have evolved much in the last few hundred years).

    To me, the varied diet with fresh fruite and veg, taken in limited quantities is merely the best way to cover our bases. One would be hard pressed to find someone who is otherwise healthy and whose nutritional needs are not met by such a diet. It is sound, reasonable advice.

    I merely wanted to point out that because such a diet generally covers the bases, doesn’t mean other diets wouldn’t cover the bases as well – especially for different people doing different things.

    As an example, I used to weigh a solid 250lbs for most of my adults life. In the span of 5 months I dropped down to 175 and then built up muscle and began competitively cycling for a few years (I’d easily put 20k miles on my bike in a year). I ate very low carb, high fat, high protein diet. In fact, if I didn’t eat at least 5,000 calories a day, I would lose weight. I also had to eat a lot of protein, and I was very picky about which fruit and veg to eat since there were times I literally couldn’t fit enough food in my stomach at a time to meet my caloric needs – in fact, after doing a 100 mile bike ride, I would eat two dinners and then wake up at 5am starving and eat a massive breakfast again.

    The point is that a diet varied and with lots of fruit and veg would not have supported me. I know it is an extreme example, but the point is that people are indeed in different states and may have very different needs. A pregnant or post-menopausal woman would need more calcium. A woman with heavy periods will need more iron. And the same varied diet with lots of fruit and veg may not be optimal or even sufficient and a monotonous diet with the right composition may indeed be just as good if not better.

  65. sonicon 14 Dec 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Regarding the need to change current farming practices–
    http://nature.berkeley.edu/~agroeco3/modern_agriculture.html

    ccbowers-
    and with ‘micronutrients’ becoming the newer thing– I’m guessing the knowledge about what makes a good diet is just beginning.
    Oh, and the hype part will probably get worse too…
    (I like the phrase ‘vitamin du jour’ BTW) :-)

  66. meghanaon 26 Nov 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Farmers are in the most crucial business and it is very difficult to alter their farming practices. The farmers did know that the chemicals cause harm, but they were helpless until the right technique came their way. Today, The Art of Living has reached out to more than 20 Lakh farmers who have been trained in organic farming.
    http://bit.ly/T9hCEj

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